Do You Have el D?a de la Raza Off?

On Columbus Day, more than 35 million Hispanic Americans will celebrate el Día de la Raza. English speakers call it Hispanic Heritage Day.

Outside of the Hispanic community, who can we expect to attend celebrations honoring Hispanic culture?

I think we will see President George Bush and Sen. John Kerry making a toast to Hispanic culture somewhere on Columbus Day. It's not hard to figure out why. Of the 271 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, 208 come from 10 states with very large Hispanic communities.

For example, millions of Hispanics live in California, Texas, Illinois, Florida and New York. Over the past 10 years, in places like North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, the Hispanic population has more than tripled. All of this means the Hispanic vote could play a deciding role on Election Day.

The rapid growth of the Hispanic population in the United States influences not only American politics, but also our food, music and commerce. For instance, grocery stores across the nation now stock a variety of Latin American foods. In fact, Americans spend more money on salsa than any other condiment. On the economic front, the Hispanic market possesses about $383 billion in purchasing power, says the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

For U.S. businesses, there's more good news. Hispanic consumers are young. They have an average age of 26 compared to 36 for the general population. This means this lucrative market will be around for a while.

From a cultural viewpoint, many Americans now accept the use of the Spanish language in public places as an integral part of the American lifestyle. Go to a restaurant, airport, train station or mall, and you will probably hear Spanish spoken.

Turn on the radio and you can dance to vibrant Latino music, or hear the news and other programs in Spanish. The same holds true for television. After English, Americans speak Spanish more than any other language. Many label this entire cultural phenomenon as the Hispanization of American culture.

This cultural phenomenon causes a lot of uneasiness in some Americans.

Many wonder what lasting effect Hispanic culture will have on American culture. They want to debate primarily this question: Will the Hispanization of America add or subtract to the patrimony of American culture?

I think I can accurately answer this question. For me, beyond any doubt, Hispanic culture will tremendously enrich American culture.

I don't say this because of the political clout that Hispanics now possess nor for the economic benefits that the United States reaps from Latino purchasing power. My judgment rests primarily on the strong moral values that Hispanics contribute to American culture. Let's take a look at these values.

Take, for example, the fact that 53% of Hispanics say they “strongly believe” in God, according to the Program for the Analysis of Religion Among Latinos.

A strong belief in God represents the first great value of the Latino community. A just society will respect the legitimate role of religion in the public sector since religion is justice practiced towards God. When a society encourages justice towards God, it lays the foundation for a healthy culture by respecting the highest value — God. With American culture drifting towards agnosticism and atheism, Latinos’ strong belief in God can only help our ailing culture.

After God, Hispanic culture values, above all, the family. The traditional family of a man, a woman and children still remains at the heart of Latino culture. Hispanic families foster their most cherished values within the family: love for life, respect for others, happiness, generosity and moral perceptiveness.

Hispanic culture loves children, since children represent the gift of life. For this reason, Hispanic families tend to be larger than families within the general population. No one denies the fact that contemporary American culture no longer sees the traditional family as a natural institution given by the Creator.

Thanks to deceptive social ideologies, many people simply don't know what a family is anymore. Many think it's just a group of people living under the same roof. The fall of the traditional family will continue to produce a dysfunctional culture closed to values of life, solidarity, mutual respect and moral discernment. I think the deep-rooted love for the traditional family held by Hispanics can help save the most basic and important institution within our culture — the family.

All the strong moral values of the Hispanic community originate from one incalculable gift: the Catholic Church. Since colonial times, Hispanics have been overwhelmingly Catholic. The majority of Hispanics in the United States continue to embrace the Church founded by Jesus Christ.

They hold to an orthodox Catholicism that has provided the Latino community with a deep spirituality expressed in popular devotions. In fact, the Catholic Church tends to contribute to the spiritual, social and cultural development of any ethnic group.

Think about the Church's schools, universities, colleges, hospitals, homeless shelters and food banks, committed to serving everyone in the name of Christ. For this reason, Hispanic Catholics love the Church. It brings out the very best values within their culture. The Church can do the same for American culture with the help of Latino Catholics who take their faith seriously.

I have only one thing to say to my Hispanic brothers and sisters living in the United States on Columbus Day: Gracias!

Father Andrew McNair is professor at Mater Ecclesiae College of Liberal Arts in Greenville, Rhode Island.